When setting a scene you should have a reason for the players to be in the encounter whether that reason is a piece of information, a contest that one is going to participate in, or an NPC they have to deal with for other reasons. Any situation the party has in front of them has multiple solutions to it and as a GM you should be trying to show at least a few of these solutions.
Let’s look at the situation of PCs needing to get information about a guard station near a tavern. They have only a couple hours to make it happen, so a stake out isn’t viable. The party could try to get a feel for the crowd and see if, as a whole, they know the routine of the guards. The party could talk to the wait staff regarding their rush times and ask if they see the nearby guards at those times.. The bartender could have a favored guard that likes to dabble in racing bets and owes the house a sizable amount.
Players could explore any of those routes to get actionable information and more. Player and PC unpredictability means you need a set up that has a goal for them to achieve and at least a few suggestions on how to resolve it. Obvious goals with varied means of resolution allow for drama to happen, which is what we want at the table.
The goal should be on the players’ minds, along with the obstacles. You, as the GM, frame what’s in the minds of the players. How you describe a scene can influence whether or not combat breaks out. In previous articles I’ve discussed how to describe a room without an NPC there and how an NPC can be made light years better by considering why the NPC is in the scene. What we’ll look at now is how the two fit together.
NPC inhabit their environment, any guild master or infochant will have their office or bar booth looking a particular fashion. The way your environment looks is an extension of you. How much you have on display and what you choose to display can leave clues to your deeper likes and dislikes. This is also the case for an NPC, no one inhabits a bland grey box of a room and letting it go undescribed allows for a blind mans’ elephant to develop.
When you have to describe every character you are putting forth to the players, an attribute that could be put forth is their location. A shop owners’ nice tidy store with everything labeled shows a tendency towards order, whereas if the competitors shop is disheveled and they have a nervous manner it can indicate something deeper going on.
Take a look at the Millennium Falcon and how it looks in Star Wars, while clean enough to walk through it is still pretty banged up and disparaged by almost everyone who sees it. This shows a part of Han Solo’s character, he is willing to use deception as part of his normal way of business. The Falcon’s appearance belies how competent Solo is and allowing others to underestimate him through it becomes an extension of who the character is.
A character that inhabits their surroundings allows for a deeper story to develop that isn’t just reading from a script you’re hoping the players can intuit. By ditching the script and knowing where and with whom the scenes are happening you allow for the players to create a more interesting encounter.
The setting that a scene is in gives you another tool to use if everyone is on the same page. Having the setting as an extension of the NPCs driving action allows for less mental book keeping as well as exemplifying what a characters point of view is. This provides hooks for players to key off of and react to.
Is there an old coat of arms from a bygone ruler on the wall? Is the office a complete mess other than the desk? Does this business leader have lawn chairs for their guests? Is the mechanics bench completely spotless, or showing projects started and abandoned? Does the wizards library have ten book stands each with a heavy tome open to differing subjects?
Each detail told to a player helps. A single sentence stating how the room is when the players arrive can be enough for an encounter to go wonderfully sideways. A detail or two showing the room and how the NPC reacts in that room gives much greater depth than an NPC without the context that they live in.
We’ve seen in many other places that doing a little bit of lead in text can go a long way in creating a connection with an encounter. While this does take time to prepare ahead of time, I have often found that having this preparation done allows for much better roleplaying at the table.
Do you use room description and detail to help your players understand the NPCs they interact with better? Even if you don’t, what other little tricks do you make use of to introduce a deeper relationship with your characters?